Walker down Memory Lane as ex-Gopher, now coach

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2011 - 12:01 AM

New Mexico State's leader has a warm spot in his heart for his old teammates, but Saturday, it's all business.

New Mexico State coach DeWayne Walker took his recruiting trip to Minnesota on a below-zero winter weekend and mistakenly wore a light letter jacket. He nonetheless cast his lot with the Gophers, playing two seasons in the early 1980s.

When he arrived the following fall from Pasadena (Calif.) City College, he brought the same coat. Oops.

"I wasn't real smart. I had my little junior college jacket. I froze my butt off," Walker said.

Walker will return to the Minnesota campus Saturday, a month or two before the cold returns, when his Aggies face the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium.

He was a two-year starter at defensive back on a couple of nondescript Joe Salem-led squads that achieved an 11-11 record during his years with the program (1980-81). But those years, Walker said, helped him mature as a player and a young man.

So he says his return to the university -- albeit on the opposing sideline -- will be somewhat emotional.

"Obviously, it's going to be a nice genuine feeling of getting back," he said. "When I went to school there, it was great. The people were great. But it's a business trip."

He said he's looking forward to discussing the old days with some of the former Gophers who've called and asked to meet in recent weeks. Players such as Marion Barber Jr. and Dana Noel, Walker said, helped him survive the weather and grow on and off the field.

His college roommate, former Gophers punter Gregg Smith, wants to stand on the Aggies sideline with him, even though Walker suggested otherwise.

"Don't get beat up," Walker said he told his friend.

Following a brief pro career in the USFL and CFL, Walker gravitated toward coaching and became a college and NFL assistant. He was defensive coordinator at UCLA for three years prior to his stint with the Aggies.

"He's just a solid guy who has been following his dreams ever since he played at the University of Minnesota," Smith said.

In December 2008, he accepted the job at New Mexico State, where his team has gone 5-20 over the past two seasons. The Aggies opened this season with a 44-24 loss to Ohio at home.

Walker said he's happy with his current position, but occasionally wonders if he would've wooed the Gophers administration if given the chance to discuss last year's vacancy with school officials.

"I never even got an opportunity so who knows what type of job I would've done in an interview. I wasn't upset," Walker said about the school's hiring of Jerry Kill.

He said he respects Kill and understands why Minnesota went after him following the dismissal of Tim Brewster, his teammate at Pasadena City College.

"I know when they hired Jerry, I knew that they really wanted somebody with head coaching experience. He has a résumé. He's a heck of a football coach," Walker said. "My winning percentage may have scared them off. I respect that."

Walker's focus now is to boost a program that's loitered at the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference standings for years. He said he is confident entering the weekend matchup at TCF Bank Stadium.

Last week, the Gophers proved that impossible is often an overstatement in college football when they nearly toppled Southern California on the road.

Walker said he wants his squad to overcome the odds by matching Minnesota's intensity and turning Saturday's game into a scrap.

"We're going to fight them for sure," he said. "We want to fight these guys, man."

Despite the importance of Saturday's game for his team, he said he'll make time for any former teammates who stop by.

"I'm not going to push away the old Gophers. If guys show up and they want to talk, I'm going to talk to my guys," Walker said. "Those guys kind of welcomed us California boys."

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